27 October 2010

Matthew Turner: “Reduced weight, aerodynamics and fully recyclable composites to make freight transport greener”

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A new composite material made of plastics, 75% lighter but almost as strong as steel, was created within the EU research project CLEANMOULD. Matthew Turner, composite engineer at EPL Composite Solutions, an independent research centre in Leicestershire, is the project coordinator

The new developed material brings about a green revolution in transport. A lighter truck means more payload, fewer journeys, less road damage, fuel savings of up to 15 percent, reduction of emissions and thus improved air quality

Which is the innovative part of your research achievements?
The innovative part of CLEANMOULD is to use recyclable resins with high volume fracture fibres which gives us structural thermoplastics. This gives us the opportunity to make really large structures from fully recyclable composites. This gives us additionally weight savings over traditional materials and allows us to do interesting things with the moulding such as creating aerodynamics integral to the moulding.

You have developed a new process to double the volume of glass fibres compared to other plastic composites, thus reinforcing the material. Can you better explain how the moulding process takes place?
Glass fibre mats impregnated with resin powder are put into a mould. A hot air gun helps to shape the mats into a 1/8th scale copy of the trailer goose-neck. This mould is then placed in a plastic bag and to keep the mat attached to the mould the bag is sealed and the air extracted. The mould is put in an oven where it is formed for two hours at 200°C. In the oven the powder resin melts into a liquid which coats the glass fibres.

You have already tested the new composite material on trailers. Are there other applications?
To mould a trailer from only one 13,6 meters large component our engineers went to the Naval Base in Portsmouth. They manufacture boats made from composites in an oven, that is 20 metres long, two metres high and 2,5 metres wide. It is one of the largest ovens in the area and can go up to just over 200°C. The process for the boats is the same: the air is extracted from the plastic bag, the oven turned on.

How much pressure does the material withstand?
First bending tests have shown impressive results: it takes a punctual load of 60 kg to break just a thin bar of the glass fibre-resin composite.

Are there other advantages provided for by the new material besides weight reduction?
Another big advantage is that the material can be shaped in an aerodynamic way. We look mainly at the chassis which is a latter formation of Steel-I-beams. And then we try to match the rigidity of that structure with that composite material. The composite trailer has a drag reduction of 13 percent. At high speeds, such as motorway cruising, this aerodynamic drag is the dominant factor in determining HGV fuel consumption. With the new designs it could be possible to save 10 percent of fuel. Another five percent could be saved through reduced weight. Composite design allows you to mould in complete shapes. But also the very nature of our monocoque design philosophy means we have got big flat smooth surfaces as supposed to a steel trailer which is very messy underneath: there are a lot of separate individual pieces that affect the airflow.

Tests and demonstrations have been successfully performed. Do you think the new composite material will be on the market soon?
The composites I believe are ready to roll out into the industry now. We’ve manufactured three prototype trailers currently and they’ve all been tested, both, statically and dynamically on the roads, and all of the feedback we’ve been getting of people who drive them is very encouraging. We are now ready to commercialise this product. 

 

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